Archive for December, 2013

Dating the Oldest New Testament Manuscripts

This is a follow-up to an earlier blog, “Chronological View of the New Testament.”  Once I begin thinking about the New Testament chronologically, one of the next questions which comes to my mind, is what are the dates of the surviving New Testament manuscripts?


Download PDF,  Table & Chart:  Earliest Fragments of the New Testament


We may think of this in the form of a two-part question:

  1.   When were the books and letters of the New Testament originally written?
  2.   What are the dates of the surviving documents?

As it turns out, these are in fact two very different questions.  The first question I dealt with in the earlier blog, along with the question of *who* wrote these books and letters (in most cases we simply do not know).  I also presented a chart of this information, which I suggest may be useful in one’s study.

This blog will open the examination of the second question, that of dating what early Christian texts survive.  To begin with, there are no known surviving *original* texts (or even fragments) of the books and letters of the New Testament.  Those long ago wore out, were destroyed, lost, or turned to dust.

In fact, even the first several generations of copies are thought by most scholars to be lost to us.  These were “working” documents, by which I mean they were used as communication devices.  As such they would have been read out loud to gatherings of people on an on-going basis.  They were *not* holy books and letters carefully hidden away and cared for;  they were hand-written documents used to conduct the “normal business” of worship, liturgy, and instruction.

This means the first copies, and copies of those copies, and likely copies of those copies, simply wore out from use.  As a copy became too worn to be used, it was copied again.  When another group wished to have a copy of one of your letters, or you of theirs, a copy was written out by hand.

I think it is useful for us to understand this point.  These books and letters only became “holy scripture” at a later date.  At first, they were just normal tools of communication.

How do we date the early Christian texts which do survive?

Answering the questions surrounding the dating of these texts quickly becomes quite complex.  Scholars differ in their opinions.  Prof. Bart Ehrman and Dr. Daniel Wallace have had a number of debates on this topics.  I find their discussion quite interesting, and perhaps you may as well.  If you are not familiar with Dr. Wallace I would suggest first watching his solo presentation, and then the debate between Ehrman and Wallace (both were offered on YouTube when I published this blog):

  •   Wallace, 45-min. presentation
  •   Ehrman-Wallace Debate, 2-hours
  •   (In the event these links are no longer valid, I suggest simply doing an Internet search of their names, Ehrman Wallace, and and you should find links to their debates as well as supporting information for both their positions.)

In discussing this information, a few points should be made.  The obvious point is this subject is still debated by recognized scholars who are expects in this field.  We must expect differences in opinion.

Another point is there are several ways of categorizing these documents and fragments.  We should begin by understanding that when the word papyrus is used, so far as I have been able to determine, this always means a relatively small piece of ancient “paper” (made from reeds).  Often these are only small fragments the size of a postage stamp, credit card, or index card.  When we speak of manuscripts these are larger documents, the average length of which is 450-pages according to Dr. Wallace.  (There are several subcategories of these, but we need not address such points in this blog.)

Scholars seem to be in wide agreement that a small credit card sized fragment, called P52 (P for papyrus;  52 for the 52nd officially catalogued papyri), is the earliest surviving fragment of the New Testament and dates to 100-150 ce.  The earliest complete copies of individual books and letters of the New Testament date to about 200 ce.  And the earliest complete New Testament bible, the Codex Sinaiticus (a codex is a “book” as we understand it, leaves of paper sewn together on one edge) dates to circa 350 ce.

  •   (In the debate, Dr. Wallace states new discoveries will advance the earliest fragments into the 1st century ce, but until the evidence survives peer review, it seems too early to speak to this question.)

Thus, our earliest surviving fragment of the New Testament dates to about 100-years after the death of Jesus, and our earliest surviving complete edition of the New Testament dates to about 300-years after the death of Jesus.

It is also worth recalling the canon was not yet agreed upon even in 350 ce.  In 367 ce Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, authoritatively published the first known list of the same 27 books found in our modern canon.  However, we should recognize he published his list specifically so that churches under his control would cease using other books and letters in their liturgy.  It stands to reason he felt he had to do so exactly because other books and letters were being so used.

Authorities differ in their opinions, as they always do, but it may have taken another 50 or 100 years for a wider consensus to be reached.  Even so, debate among the church leadership regarding the proper canon continued into the 1500’s, and even into the 1600’s.

  •   Canon of Trent (1546, Roman Catholicism)
  •   Gallic Confession of Faith (1559, Calvinism)
  •   Thirty-Nine Articles (1563, Church of England)
  •   Synod of Jerusalem (1672, Greek Orthodox)

New Manuscripts Are Still Being Discovered

Dr. Wallace offers an interesting slide during his solo presentation.  He shows us how many manuscripts were available to those who compiled the King James Version of the bible (1611 ce), and how many are now available (as of 2012, the year of his presentation).  The change is very large!  Also note the year of the earliest available manuscript.  This too is interesting.

YEAR      Number of MSS      EARLIEST MSS
1611                    7                       11th Century
2012             5,800+                      2nd Century

As one can see, we are approaching 6,000 Greek manuscripts of the New Testament.  (Dr. Wallace’s count is about 5,900 and slowly increasing as new discoveries are catalogued.)  And some of the earliest are dating to within 100-200 years of the death of Jesus.

While there are differences between each one of them, even those most closely related to one another, the vast majority of these differences make no difference at all.  Some are spelling errors, some use an unnecessary word (such as “the Mary and the Joseph”);  other differences are so small as to only be apparent in the original Greek, and are not even translatable into English.

Dr. Wallace offers the opinion that less than 1% of the differences are significant, and may also alter the reading of the verse in which they take place.  On the other hand, he is of the opinion none of these alterations are significant enough to be considered primary challenges to core theological concepts.  Interestingly, Prof. Ehrman agreed.

I find this interesting because elsewhere I have understood Ehrman to hold the opinion some of these alterations could be considered significant to one’s theology.  However, I will have to do more research investigating this question before writing about it.

“Differences that make a difference” (Ehrman)

So what then, are the “differences that make a difference” which these two experts discussed?  And how is it that a difference may make a difference, but not a theologically significant difference?  Especially when, according to Ehrman, such differences include questioning the nature of the the following theological points:

  •   Trinity
  •   Full divinity of Jesus
  •   Full humanity of Jesus
  •   Atoning sacrifice of Jesus’ death

Ehrman and Wallace did not answer these questions in their debate.  I will point out for whomever may be interested, that one may wish to examine the Nicene Creed.  By carefully examining this Creed one is able to determine that various church leaders were in heated debate with one another over the proper interpretation of scripture and church tradition.

However, close examination of the Creed is not the purpose of this blog.  One may conduct an Internet search on this topic, should one find it of interest.  The history of its formation is quite involved, and it ultimately forced the split of the Eastern and Western Church – called the Great Schism.  (Ultimately, the Great Schism took place over the splitting of a single letter, in a single word of the Creed.  But many decades of argument led up to this final straw of dispute.)

Read from a certain point of view, the Creed is an exclusionary vehicle.  The words were chosen with great care both to affirm a certain understanding of Christianity, but arguably even more importantly, to specifically exclude other understandings of Christianity.

I am one who reads the Creed as an exclusionary vehicle.  I am also personally much more motivated by a unifying form of Christianity, than by a divisive form.  This is why I prefer the inclusionary Act of Faith.  Jesus is reported to have considered all of the Law and Prophets to have stood on Love:  Love of God, and Love of all others.  With this thought in mind, I offer for your consideration, the text of the Nicene Creed and the Act of Faith:

The 1979 Episcopal Church, Book of Common Prayer

We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
and was made man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.
He has spoken through the Prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen.

Act of Faith

We believe that God, is Love, the Power, the Truth, and the Light.
That all, shall one day become, One with the Divine.
We hold, the Grace of God, is the Unity of humanity.
We know, we do serve the Lord best, as we best serve, our brothers and sisters.
So shall Christ’s blessing rest upon us, and peace for evermore. Amen.

Sweating Blood

Ehrman cites Luke chapter 22 as an example of differences which make a difference.  He refers to the story of Jesus sweating blood prior to his being betrayed and turned over to the Romans for execution on the cross.

Ehrman makes the point this sweating blood is *not* found in the earliest and best manuscripts of Luke.  So we know there has been a change made by the scribes who copied this text.  The question is in which direction:  was the sweating blood added or removed?  when?  why?

The argument which Ehrman offers (and to which I agree) is that the Gospel of Luke was seen as being too passionless.  It is sometimes called the “passionless Passion of Christ.”  It is also sometimes pointed to in order to argue that Jesus was so fully Divine as not to be human (and thus had no fear of his “Passion”).  This idea did not sit well with later scribes, so they changed the text so that it included Jesus’ sweating blood, demonstrating both a human condition and a man very much concerned with his coming Passion.

This is a difference that makes a difference, to be sure.  But how theologically significant is it, really?  I’d suggest this depends if one reads Luke to be portraying a non-human Jesus or not.  If one reads Luke’s Jesus as already being human and Divine, it is not a theologically significant difference.  However, if this scene is the pivotal scene which changes one’s understanding of Jesus to include being very much human, and of suffering his Passion, it makes a very, very significant theological difference.

How might these insights change how one reads the New Testament?  

It is not my place to try to tell you how to interpret this scene, or any other, in the New Testament.  But I would ask you to consider the ramifications of scribes altering the text of the New Testament, and doing so intentionally.  Erroneous mistakes are a given, easily forgiven and usually quite easy to detect:  no harm, no foul.  But making intentional changes are of an entirely different category.

What I take from this line of enquiry is that the New Testament is a very human work, and demonstrates a series of attempts to understand the life of Jesus, and what he reveals to us of the Divine.  Something profound took place 2,000-years ago, and it took persons decades, hundreds of years, to work through what happened.  And 2,000-years later you and I are still working through what that life of Jesus means to us.

No doubt, the initial stories of Jesus were carried forth in an oral tradition.  As time passed, these stories began to be written down.  But first, a mystic experienced a life-changing conversion, in which he was confronted by the risen Christ.  He began travelling city to city, forming small house churches where he could.  When these churches experienced internal difficulties, he preferred to re-visit them personally to clarify their understanding of what it meant to be in Christ.  When he was unable to re-visit them personally, he sent his representative to sort out these difficulties.  And when this was not possible, he wrote letters addressing the specific concerns of churches he formed.  That person was Paul, and a number of his letters survive.

As these various texts were held in increasing regard, they were copied and spread from one group of Christians to another.  And the only way to copy a text in the ancient world was for someone to sit down and copy the book or letter one single character at a time, word by word, line by line;  hopefully making as few errors as possible.  And as these cherished texts were worn out they were copied;  and copied again;  and again.

This is how the early manuscripts, which were ultimately to become scripture, came to us.  They were deemed to be important documents, to be sure.  But initially they were not understood to be “scripture,” although in time they were seen in this light.  So am I certain many scribes took great care in copying the texts which they encountered.  And I am equally certain some scribes were some combination of tired, careless, or less skilled, and as a result, errors creep into the texts.  (And, sadly, some just did not like what had been written before them, and changed the text to better fit their own theological understanding.)

Making errors in this environment is unavoidable.  Anyone who doubts this can test it for themselves.  Open you bible to the Gospel of Mark and copy it out in its entirely onto sheets of paper.  If you can find a willing partner, have them produce their own copy from your copy.  If you want a more accurate test, you need to find five or ten willing partners, and each copy a letter or book of the bible and re-copy them amongst yourselves.  Then compare these copies one to the other, and then to the bibles from which each of you started.  I fully expect you will find errors.  And the odds are you are better educated than most scribes were 2,000-years ago.

I for one, do not see an obvious answer.  

Errors did take place.  We have the ancient manuscripts which document this took place.  Some scholars claim the differences are really more or less insignificant.  Other scholars think there are at least some significant differences.

By and large, I suspect we do have something pretty close to the “original” texts (although, we can never be certain this is true).  On the other hand, I also know no two ancient texts were identical, and I know in some cases intentional changes were made.  Therefore, I know I am dealing with altered documents.

I also know that I do not fluently read Greek, therefore I am likely to miss shades of meaning at times.  And most of us cannot read any Greek, so we are at the mercy of those who interpret from Greek into English.  There must be times meaning is lost or changed, because that is the nature of translating across languages.  Some words and ideas do not translate perfectly.  And is the translator to make his translation as literal as possible, or to fit the meaning of the source text as closely as possible?  (Frequently, it is impossible to do both;  all translations are a series of such compromises.)

So I know I am not dealing with a pristine text, and I know I am dealing with a human text.  I am not reading the Hand of God.  I am reading copied and translated thoughts another human being had of their impression of the Divine;  or farther removed from the source, of an impression of another person’s experience of the Divine.

This is far from simple to sort out.  It requires subtlety.  It certainly requires subtlety if one is inclined to mine into the space between the written words.  But I also believe there is an underlying Truth which is still conveyed to us through the text, despite all the difficulties.

There are levels of understanding and personal revelation at work.  

There is the initial revelation which one might be struck by as a new Christian.  I view these as more basic and broadly stated concerns which impact our lives.  But by “basic” I do not lacking vitality, these often strike a person with profound life-changing strength.  By “basic” I mean one may be able to organize one thoughts around them sufficiently to write them down on a piece of paper.

Other apprehensions are more subtle, more abstract, and frankly, more confusing insights that one must puzzle through to one’s own spiritual satisfaction.  Some of these are even paradoxical, and we cannot presume to ever discover an answer.

But perhaps we are not supposed to feel *that* certain in our understanding of what it means to be a follower of Christ?  perhaps we are supposed to leave an opening for Divine Mystery in our lives, and in our interactions with others?

My heart-felt suggestions for you are:

  •   Do not simply believe everything you are told.
  •   Read the New Testament prayerfully, mindfully, with discernment.
  •   Read the New Testament with both an open mind and open spirit.
  •   Embrace holding your mind open, and strive to see from alternate points of view.
  •   Open your spirit to intuition.
  •   Truth speaks to those with ears to hear.

Offered with blessings, on Christmas Eve 2013, when our thoughts turn to the meaning of Jesus, the Christ, and how our lives are impacted by his life, some 2,000-years later.


The following are a collection of additional links of interest for those who enjoy getting lost in library stacks!



Codex Sinaiticus:

Codex Vaticanus:

Codex Alexandrinus:


Which Version of the Holy Bible is Best?

Anyone who knows me, knows this is a rhetorical question;  if you have been reading much of my blog, you may well have come to the same conclusion.  There is of course a point to the question.  At least three points, in fact!

  •   Which bible?
  •   Which version?
  •   “Best” for what?

Which bible?  

“Bible” derives from the Greek, βιβλίο, or biblio, and it just means “book.”  Any book.  Of course, in the United States most think of the Christian bible if you just say “the bible.”  But we still might wish to know if we are speaking of a Protestant bible or a Catholic bible, as there are some differences between the two.  And some Eastern Orthodox bibles include a few books not found in Western bibles.  Beyond these considerations, we might also ask about the differences between the Hebrew bible and the Christian Old Testament.

As we quickly see, even this simple question can become somewhat complex.

The first point I think important to appreciate is that the Christian bible is comprised of two parts.  The first part is the Hebrew bible;  the second part is the New Testament.  Both of these are anthologies, a collection of ancient books and letters written by a variety of persons.  The Hebrew bible was written across many hundreds of years, while the New Testament was written in roughly a 100-year span, beginning about 30-years or so after Jesus was executed by the Romans.

It is always dangerous to make simplified statements in this area of study, but *essentially* the Christian Old Testament is the same as the Hebrew bible, although arranged differently.  The Hebrew bible was revised in the first century of the Common Era, removing those books for which Jewish tradition says there could be found no copies written in Hebrew.  The assumption was if they could not find any copies written in Hebrew, these books did not belong in the Hebrew bible.  Christians too have historically held some differences in opinion as to which books should be included in their Old Testament (and still do).  Martin Luther felt a number of books should be removed, and most Protestant bibles observe this form to this day.  From this stems the differences between the Protestant and Catholic bibles.

This is only a very rough sketch of the long and complex (and on certain points, still debated) process of determining the canon of Hebrew and Christian bibles.  A great deal more research may be done on the subject, and for those who find this of interest, it is quite an intriguing area of study.

The main point I wish to make for this blog, is simply to alert the reader there are several different authorized versions of the “bible” with which you may wish to be familiar:  the Hebrew bible;  the Christian Protestant bible;  the Christian Catholic bible;  and the Eastern Orthodox bibles.  All hold equal claim to being “the bible.”

The next question is:  Which version?  

At this point I will drop the Hebrew bible from the conversation and refer to only the New Testament.  More specifically still, I will only refer to either the Protestant and Catholic bibles.  Even with these limitations we have a dizzying array of choices before us!  The Biblical Archaeology web site ( currently offers a very useful PDF guide, highlighting the major differences between 33 versions of the Christian bible.  I found it quite interesting and helpful in determining which bible one may prefer:

Beyond this, I would also like to point out there are a number of “study” bibles one may purchase.  Many of these are quite good, and provide useful introductions to every book within the bible.  Reading these summaries are a wonderful way to begin reading a given book of the bible, and is a very good place to start when looking up a particular verse.  It really adds a lot of depth and dimension to one’s studies.  Critical understanding of the bible is strongly effected by context:  context of that particular book or letter to the rest of the bible;  context of the author to his audience;  and the context within history.  As these considerations are better understood, we may turn to the context of a given passage to the text in which it is embedded.  Among my favourite study bibles are:

  •   “Harper-Collins Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version” (with the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books)
  •   “The Jewish Study Bible: Featuring The Jewish Publication Society TANAKH Translation” (edited by Adele Berlin, Marc Zvi Brettler, and Michael Fishbane)

What about interlinear bibles?

A useful study tool is an interlinear bible.  These bibles provide several languages, one written above the other, line by line, so you may make direct comparisons in your bible study.  These tend to be more expensive bibles, and they are offered by fewer publishers, however there are online versions, one of which is:

If you take a look at the page for Genesis chapter one, you’ll get an idea how an interlinear bible is arranged.  Note that Hebrew reads from the right to the left, so when reading Genesis 1:1, for example, you must start reading at the right edge of the screen, and work your way to the left.  Below the Hebrew, the English translation is displayed.  Sometimes Hebrew words have no corresponding word in English, and sometimes several.

The numerals above the Hebrew typically correspond to Strong’s lexicon, which allows you to look up words by their assigned number.  Why would one wish to do that?  You will discover that the number for a given word always is assigned to the same word in the original language, however, it may be assigned to several words in the language into which it is being translated.  This allows us to see that the original word carries multiple meanings, and this helps us understand which may be the better translation for a given passage, yet be better understood differently in another passage.  And, importantly, this allows us to work with the source language and verify the translation appear to be accurate;  or perhaps we will discover some subtle shades of meaning which would otherwise remain hidden to us:

Which leaves us to answer which is the “best” version of the bible?  

This is impossible to answer, because it depends upon one’s needs and preferences.  For myself, there are some passages which simply only “sound right” to my ear when spoken in the King James version.  On the other hand, I know there are hundreds of words used in that version of the bible which no longer mean what they did when it was written, some of which are now extremely misleading.  Furthermore, I know it was originally sourced from what are now known to have been inferior copies of the manuscripts (this was unintentional;  at the time they made use of the best, or only, copies to which they had access).  So for these reasons, I do not use the King James version when I am critically reading the bible.  But when I want beautiful, poetic prose, I do tend to prefer the King James version.

Of the modern translations, my favorite is the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).  I also enjoy the New American Bible (NAB) translation.  But realistically, all modern translations are on par with one another, and for the most part make good use of modern biblical scholarship.  Personally, I like to have several translations at hand.

A very useful online study tool is the Bible Gateway web site ( which offers a large number of translations, and the ability to compare them side by side.  This is usually where I begin my bible study, because it is so fast and easy to cross compare multiple translations:

If one is really wishing to get into the thick of working out a translation, one should explore the source language.  In most cases, that is going to be Hebrew for the Hebrew bible, and Greek for the New Testament.  One of the areas I especially enjoy this line of enquiry is when names of God appear in the Christian Old Testament.  This is one case where we who do not speak Hebrew lose a lot in translation.  And I suspect those of us who are not Jewish usually fail to appreciate the depth of tradition in how the various names of G-d are used.

(When speaking from a Christian perspective, I’ll type out “God” but I feel this inappropriate when speaking from a Jewish perspective because they consider this blasphemous;  hence the use of “G-d.”)

It is all really quite interesting!  Words may mean different things in the same language, change in meaning across time, and we even debate the proper definition of certain words to this day!  Surely, this has always been the case.  Add to this the difficulty in translating from one language to another, and dealing with the many decisions in so doing, such as whether one should be translating as literally as possible, or for as similar a meaning as possible, and we can see a great deal of work goes into making a given translation of “the bible.”

And I hope you also see why it is not possible for there to be any “one” or “best” translation of the bible.

Offered with blessings,

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